10 Contemporary Female Composers That You Should Know

To celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, I would like to introduce ten contemporary female composers who have not been introduced on Interlude before. While certainly not exhaustive, this list of ten composers illustrates the wide scope of dynamic creativity in music today. These artists are exemplars of the talent and skill that will keep our art fresh and relevant in the years to come.

Gabriela Lena Frank

Gabriela Lena Frank

1. Gabriela Lena Frank (1972-)

Gabriela Lena Frank (1972-) is an American pianist and composer who was listed in Washington Post as one of the 35 most significant female composers in history. She has suffered from moderate hearing loss since she was young, but it did not stop her from a composition career. Born in a multicultural family, Frank’s father is of Lithuanian and Jewish descent while her mother is Peruvian, of Chinese descent. Her music, including her Grammy-award winning piece Inca Dances, reflects her Peruvian heritage as well as her interest in South American music:

Gabriela currently serves as the composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Her latest project is her first opera, The Last Dream of Frida. It will be premiered by San Diego Opera in this coming 2021-2022 season.

Sungji Hong

Sungji Hong

2. Sungji Hong (1973-)

South Korean composer Sungji Hong has won many awards including the first prize of Franz Josef Reinl-Stiftung, Ilshin Composition Prize and In Nova Musica Competition. She currently serves as the composition lecturer at the University of North Texas. Her creative output reflects her appreciation of natural sounds and perhaps also her experience living in Greece. Kiklos for Orchestra was awarded the First Prize at the International Competition for Original Ballet Music in 2003. The word Kiklos means cycles in Greek and the four movements in this piece were inspired by the four seasons:

3. Elena Kats-Chernin (1957-)

Elena Kats-Chernin

Elena Kats-Chernin © John Feder / The Australian

Born in Tashkent (current capital city of Uzbekistan), Elena Kats-Chernin received early musical training in Russia before emigrating to Australia with her family in 1975. She continued her music studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and later in Germany. She has composed in many genres throughout her life. One of her best-known compositions was her ballet score Wild Swans. The score was later arranged into a twelve-movement concert suite; the second movement, Eliza Aria, is especially popular, it has been arranged for solo piano and piano for four hands:

Unsuk Chin

Unsuk Chin

4. Unsuk Chin (1961-)

South Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto earned her the 2004 Grawemeyer Award. Chin composes for both electronic and acoustic instruments. A student of György Ligeti and Sukhi Kang, Chin’s work reflects the influence of her teachers in her own unique style.
Chin’s Cello Concerto was highlighted by The Guardian as one of the 25 best classical works since 2000. It is dedicated to German cellist Alban Gerhardt. His recording of the Cello Concerto won the BBC Music Magazine Award in 2015.

Tonia Ko

Tonia Ko

5. Tonia Ko (1988-)

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, Tonia Ko is currently a composition lecturer at the Royal Holloway, University of London. She obtained a D.M.A in composition at Cornell University, and she received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2018. Her creative output includes both music composition and visual art. Her recent work, Tired Thing, is an example of Ko’s use of rich textures and layers to create varied atmospheres. The piece, written for piano and toy piano, was commissioned by the piano duo Hocket for their project #what2020soundslike.

Augusta Read Thomas

Augusta Read Thomas © Anthony Barlich

6. Augusta Read Thomas (1964-)

American composer Augusta Read Thomas is currently the Professor of Composition at The University of Chicago. Thomas served as Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the batons of Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez between 1997 and 2006. Her last commissioned work for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Astral Canticle, was one of two finalists for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

Her music is influenced by both classical and popular music. The latest work, Bell Illuminations for solo piano (2020), is inspired by musicians ranging from Maurice Ravel to Bill Evans, and shows different characters and styles intersecting with each other:

7. Caroline Shaw (1983-)

Caroline Shaw

Caroline Shaw © Kyle Dorosz

In 2013, Caroline Shaw won the Pulitzer Prize for Music with her work Partita for 8 Voices, making her the youngest recipient of the award. The work was written for acapella ensemble Roomful of Teeth, of which she is a member. Shaw is not only a composer but also a violinist and a vocalist. Her latest work, Narrow Sea, was written for Sō Percussion, Dawn Upshaw, and Gilbert Kalish. The work is in five movements, scored for traditional instruments, as well as ceramic bowls and flowerpots. The music combines elements of folklore and sonic exploration. The texts were selected from The Sacred Harp shape-note hymns.

Shaw does not limit herself to western classical music. She collaborated with Kanye West on the remix of Say You Will. Shaw also appeared on the TV show Mozart in the Jungle.

Gabriela Ortiz

Gabriela Ortiz

8. Gabriela Ortiz (1964-)

Latin Grammy-nominated Gabriela Ortiz is a Mexican composer and educator. Ortiz’s parents are members in the ensemble group Los Folkloristas which perhaps influenced her to write music connecting Latin American styles with the western classical styles. She was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She completed Ph.D. studies in electroacoustic music composition at the City University of London and she teaches composition at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and she also serves as a Visiting Professor at Indiana University. One of her compositions, Altar de Muertos, won the first prize in the Silvestre Revueltas National Chamber Music Competition:

Franghiz ali-Zadeh

Franghiz ali-Zadeh

9. Franghiz ali-Zadeh (1947-)

Azerbaijani composer and pianist, Franghiz ali-Zadeh serves as an ambassador promoting Azerbaijani music and 20th-century classical music to a broader audience. Her composition output creates a unique style incorporating the Azerbaijanian mugham sound and western European music styles. As a pianist, her repertoire includes works by Azerbaijani composers as well as 20th-century composers like George Crumb and Arnold Schoenberg. In 2000, she was given the honorary title “People’s artist of the Republic of Azerbaijan.” Her works are commissioned and performed by many prominent artists and ensembles, including Yo-Yo Ma and the Kronos Quartet.

10. Kaija Anneli Saariaho (1952-)

Kaija Anneli Saariaho

Kaija Anneli Saariaho

One of the most prominent Finnish composers, Kaija Anneli Saariaho has claimed major international composition awards throughout her career. Based in France, she received the title “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres,” one of the highest honors in France.

She composed almost every genre imaginable and her opera L’Amour de loin, won the Grawemeyer Composition Award in 2003. The Metropolitan Opera performance of this work in 2016 marked the first opera by a female composer since Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald in 1903.

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